After I was done with the devil-may-care use of my credit in college and those few, frivolously spendthrift years immediately thereafter, I decided to get serious about my money. Not that I had much of it to get serious about. You just don’t live the life of Riley on a fledgling editor/freelance writer’s income, whenever it does come in, especially not in the first few years out of school. I was doing the darn thing if I could pay that hoe Sallie Mae and my car note out of the same paycheck. God bless my mama and nana for their undying love and their generous pockets when their baby girl was in her trying-to-find-myself phase.
On my mission to right the wrongs I had done to my FICO score, which hovered maybe around a 10 or 14 on a good day, and stretch my precious dollars in all of the directions they needed to go, I scrimped and sacrificed to pay off outstanding balances when I could. And when I couldn’t, I made mostly heartfelt promises to hold the wolf packs of bill collectors at bay. It was an interesting ground study in economics for this former English major: Spending money I didn’t have took two, maybe three years. Digging myself out of the hole took freakin’ forever.
During that time, some of my closest friends were traveling, going on exotic trips to places I could only Google and turn into screensavers; volunteering; and studying abroad and earning more degrees. One bought a house, and pretty much all of them were shopping and getting their hair done and pedicures did and nails polished. Meanwhile, my uniform was sweatpants and a ponytail because I was going too hard financially to justify shelling out cash on primping and beautifying, even though I desperately wanted to be up in the salon like everybody else (and probably needed it, too). That money, I reasoned, would be better spent paying down a balance on something than lining the wallet of a manicurist.
So life trudged on like that in a period I affectionately dubbed “Personal Revolution.” I not only abstained from shopping and professional coiffing — which means I was the reigning queen of the box perm home kit at that time — but I also didn’t dine out, buy music, or give too many gifts. I was on total financial lockdown. But even in my self-deprivation, I didn’t really feel like I was getting anywhere. It’s like when you’re on a diet and cut out carbs, processed sugars, and sodium, and you look up and realize you’re noshing on bean curd and grass blades and you’ve only lost two pounds. A person can only go on like that for but so long before discouragement starts to make the whole effort seem futile. I was doing all of that working, but I wasn’t living. And I wanted to live.
I changed my stringent approach, though, when I lost three members of my close-knit family in boom-boom-boom succession. I watched my auntie, who had been an aerobic-training, marathon-running, health-food-eating dynamo, dwindle away from stomach cancer. She went from kicking off the Electric Slide at every family function to being spoon fed rice pudding because she was too weak to keep anything down. Then my grandmother passed. She was everything to us — me, my daughter, our whole family — and the sting of her absence is still fresh today. Not long after, my uncle died in his sleep of a brain aneurysm and laid in wait for my mother to discover her only brother had gone on to be with God when he was supposed to get up in the morning and finish the laundry, pick up the paper, and rush to and fro like everybody else.
I also lost two friends from school within a year. Eerily enough, I attended the funeral for one with the other, only to get the notice about the second’s passing a few months later. One shocked us by having a stroke in his early 20s; the other slipped away in the middle of the night while she was asleep. It’s one thing to watch the randomness of inevitability pluck off your elders, but a whole other kind of in-your-face reality when people your own age start passing on. Those deaths put an entirely different spin on the cliché that life really is short. You won’t catch me windsailing off the top of the Chrysler Building — I don’t want today to be my last if it doesn’t have to be, now — but I’ve come to the conclusion that life also isn’t going to wait patiently while I build up a 401(k) and amass a certain savings goal, especially, especially if is money is tight.
That doesn’t mean I’m not saving. I don’t want to be broke all my life, existing from paycheck to paycheck, biding my time until I can pounce on the 15th and the 30th of every month in pathetic anticipation of payday. But I also don’t think myself a bad person by saying eff it every once in a while to take a trip or try a restaurant I’ve really been wanting to experience, even if it’s not in the budget. I don’t give myself carte blanche to act a fool and dig myself deep into the same ridiculous indebtedness I was in as a college kid, but I also don’t bully myself too badly if, when I need to get away for a week or weekend and the money isn’t there, I do some juggling to make it happen. Actually, I find something gloriously freeing in being occasionally irresponsible.
Once, when I was just about this close to a black out from the stresses of life and single motherhood, my best friend and I rented a car and road tripped, Thelmaisha and Louisetta-style, through the Carolinas down to Atlanta. I had about $200 in the bank at the time, but when I came home I didn’t have a single regret. Both the bills and the money replenished themselves, but the memories are priceless. If the good Lord called me from the earth today like he did so many of the people whose vibrancy I loved and admired, I want to have had a chance to do and see and smell and touch and taste and laugh and play and travel and experience as much as possible. I want all of the financial accouterments of success, too, of course. But I also want the contentment of knowing that, when death knocks on my door, I lived. Not through other people’s stories, statuses, and Instagram accounts, but for myself.